Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday that active-duty troops deployed to the border can now help protect any Customs and Border Patrol agents who come under attack but will remain unarmed under new authorities he's been granted by the White House.
"I now have authority to do more" with the 5,800 active-duty troops sent to Texas, Arizona and New Mexico last month, he said, but stressed that he will decide how that authority is used.
The troops will "not be doing law enforcement" and "we do not have arrest authority," Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon in an informal session.
The new authority could apply to a situation in which a CBP agent comes under attack by a migrant, Mattis said. Unarmed U.S. troops could come to the aid of the agent and take the migrant to the next available CBP agent for arrest.
"We could stop them from beating on [the agent]," he said.
The new authorities, granted in a memo late Tuesday night from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, do not include any references to the use of lethal force, and there have been "no calls for any lethal force from [Department of Homeland Security]," Mattis said.
He said that military police among the active-duty troops at the border also could be used for crowd control. They would be unarmed but would likely carry shields and batons to assist CBP "if we had to back them up," he said.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly warned that migrant asylum seekers surging to the border amount to an "invasion" and has said their ranks could be infiltrated by potential terrorists and MS-13 gang members.
However, Mattis said the threat does not rise to the level that would force him to scrap the tentative Dec.15 deadline for the end of the deployment.
He said many of the troops would likely be home for Christmas but some might stay, depending on the needs of DHS and CBP.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.